The Lead

New district maps loom over Pa. lawmakers ahead of long-awaited reveal

By: - December 16, 2021 7:09 am

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo).

As the Pennsylvania General Assembly finished off its last week of lawmaking of 2021, the specter of a key vote on Thursday — one entirely outside of its control — loomed over their debates.

“You know, today, the chatter in this building is maps,” state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, quipped on the House floor while debating a climate change initiative.

The state Legislative Reapportionment Commission is set to meet at 1 p.m. on Thursday to approve preliminary district lines for all 253 members of the General Assembly.

The new lines, needed to adjust districts to new population data from the 2020 census, have been long anticipated by both parties. But Democrats particularly see it as a chance for a fresh start after more than a decade out of power in the General Assembly.

When she was asked In October how her party could get into the majority when the new lines take effect in 2022, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, quickly pointed to the commission’s results.

“How can Democrats pick up seats? Through fairer maps,” McClinton said.

The commission consists of the four floor leaders — McClinton, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre; Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny — plus a fifth member serving as its chairperson, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

The state Supreme Court tapped Nordenberg this spring when the four legislative leaders could not agree on a chair.

“I don’t take the challenges lightly, but I think the opportunity to make a real contribution is present.” Nordenberg said after his appointment. 

Since then, Nordenberg has proven hard to read. He backed a measure from McClinton to count people in state prison at their home addresses, which Republicans opposed. 

A few weeks later, he supported a slight roll back that decreased the number of imprisoned people impacted by the decision.

Mapping has been underway for months. Using the past as the guide, the maps were likely drawn through negotiations between the leaders in each individual chamber the Capital-Star has previously reported. When facing a dispute, they’d approach Nordenberg to break a tie.

Nordenberg also has hired his own mapper, a first among commission chairs. He previously told the Capital-Star his intention is “not to wrest control of the mapping process.”

 “I do think this should be a collaborative process,” Nordenberg added.

Pa. redistricting is poised to be transparent. Will it be fair? Advocates think yes.

Draft maps were not publicly available Wednesday. But at least four House Republican lawmakers told the Capital-Star they had been shown their districts.

In the House, the new lines may not show much regard for sitting lawmakers. 

More than half a dozen legislative sources in both parties cautioned that the lines could still change before Thursday, but that double-digit incumbents would be forced into either primary or general election races against other incumbents. 

And unlike in the U.S. Congress, state lawmakers must live in their districts to run in them, further complicating an aggrieved legislator’s political prospects.

Most of the incumbent-on-incumbent primaries in the House appeared to be among Republican lawmakers, sources added.

After the draft maps are approved, there must be 30 days of citizen review before they can be voted on again. At that point, aggrieved parties have 30 days to issue a legal challenge before the maps can be implemented.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.